Miliband denounces McCluskey over "reprehensible" attack on Blairites

The Labour leader moves swiftly to condemn the Unite general secretary over his comments to the New Statesman.

Len McCluskey's fierce attack on the "Blairites" in the shadow cabinet in my interview with him for the NS has been met with a no less fierce response from Ed Miliband. In his most significant criticism of the Unite general secretary since becoming leader, Miliband has denounced McCluskey's remarks as "reprehensible" and "disloyal". A spokesperson for the Labour leader said:

Len McCluskey does not speak for the Labour Party. This attempt to divide the Labour Party is reprehensible. It is the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s. It won’t work, it is wrong, it is disloyal to the party he claims to represent.

McCluskey, whose union helped secure the Labour leadership for Miliband in 2010, told me that Miliband would be "defeated" and "cast into the dustbin of history" if he was "seduced" by "the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders". Of Liam Byrne, the shadow and work pensions secretary, he said: "Liam Byrne certainly doesn’t reflect the views of my members and of our union’s policy, I think some of the terminology that he uses is regrettable and I think it will damage Labour. Ed’s got to figure out what his team will be."

One of the three shadow cabinet ministers singled out for criticism by McCluskey - Jim Murphy - has now responded on Twitter. "It's disappointing in advance of important local elections that Len McCluskey turns his fire on Labour," he said.

Miliband's decision to distance himself so swiftly and explicitly from the Unite head will come as a relief to those in the party who feel that he has often been too tolerant of McCluskey's regular attacks on the party's Blairite wing and the Progress group in particular. But Unite's status as Labour's largest donor (it was responsible for 28 per cent of donations to the party last year and has given £8.4m to Labour since Miliband became leader) means he won't be able to dismiss McCluskey as easily as many would like.

The politics of the intervention, though, could yet work to his advantage. By rejecting Blair one week (another NS exclusive) and McCluskey the next, he has positioned himself as the reasonable moderate, holding the centre between the New Labour diehards and the union militants.

Ed Miliband addresses delegates at the annual CBI conference in central London, on November 19, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.